Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Polymeme: Architecting the way out of echo chambers?

My friend Evgeny Morozov is one of the most insightful technology journalists working today, writing for The Economist, BusinessWeek and Le Monde. (That’s what I think even on weeks where he hasn’t written extremely kind things about my projects.) His blog, dominated by long lists of consistently interesting bookmarks, is one of my few daily reads, in part because he’s one of my main sources of serendipity, finding things interesting to me, often on topics I didn’t know I was interested in.

Evgeny is deeply concerned with the question of serendipity and on the phenomenon of media cocooning, the tendency of people to surround themselves with media that echoes topics, interests and political points of view that we share. More to the point, as a Belarussian fascinated both international politics, he’s frustrated that popular blog aggregators rarely track news from around the world, or news on subjects other than technology. From an email he sent to friends this morning:

Over the years of following the English-language blogosphere, I have become increasingly frustrated with the absence of news aggregators that could help me stay on top of important developments in non-tech areas. Fields like economics, design, law, environment, or literature didn’t seem to have their own Digg, Techmeme or Technorati; thus, navigating through the growing non-tech blogospheres has become very difficult. As the amount of information on the Web has kept growing rapidly, it has proved quite challenging to remain a true polymath, i.e. remain continuously well-informed about a multitude of fields, not just one.

Fighting fire with fire, Evgeny’s released a new aggregator, Polymeme. Using software he and a team of developers have put together, the system tracks 20 collections of blogs, each tightly focused on a specific topic, like Economics or Evolution. The software reads the RSS feeds of the blogs and discovers what news stories, blogposts or other media that community is pointing to and discussing. The system offers stories and blogposts clustered around the topics, which are paired with (creative-commons licensed, discovered on Flickr) photos and organized on a frontpage and subject pages. Other tools allow you to find popular memes, phrases and topics that have been identified across communities.

Most of the stories Polymeme finds, Evgeny tells me, are mainstream media stories… just ones that you’re not likely to find via Digg and Reddit – instead, they’re the stories getting discussed by economists, evolutionary biologists or other smart, subject-focused bloggers. It’s my experience that bloggers focused on a particular issue – Afrophilia, for instance – tend to flock to a set of articles that become important discussion points in that sphere, even if they’re invisible to the rest of the web as a whole. Polymeme gives you the chance to listen in on some of those conversations, even if you’re not an active blogger in that space.

Some things I think are great about the idea and the early incarnation of the system:

– Using bloggers as a set of experts to find relavent content is very, very smart, as that’s what bloggers are already do, and because human filtering systems are much more powerful than purely algorithmic ones.

– This is one of the first tools I’ve seen with an explicit promise to diversify voices on the web and break out of existing echo chambers. From a description on the site of the project: “Polymeme helps you discover intelligent content that lies beyond the usual echo chambers of tech news, celebrity gossip or American politics.”

– Because the collection of blogs the system uses is quite diverse, the sources cited tend to be significantly broader than those I see on other aggregators.

– The site is organized in terms of a central story, followed by stories and blogposts that comment on it, making it quite easy to find a path into a conversation on a breaking topic.

Spme open questions I’m curious to explore:

– Will the topics the system covers be as insular and echo-filled as the tech and US politics blogosphere? Is there a danger that Polymeme is just making more echo chambers?

– Is clustering stories enough, or will Polymeme need to do some storytelling to help encourage people to explore these new stories?

– Will the system work without the sorts of community voting functions that Digg and Reddit rely on? Are bloggers a better quality filter than a reader community?

I’m thrilled that Evgeny is trying a practical response to challenges about homophily and serendipity and fascinated to see where this will go. I hope you’ll give it a try.

6 Responses to “Polymeme: Architecting the way out of echo chambers?”

  1. Evgeny says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Ethan!

    Let me also point out that there is also OpenCalais functionality to automatically “measure” buzz in all of our 20 areas: polymeme.com/buzz

    One of the challenges for Polymeme in the future is how to expose people to stories from various fields without ruining their user experience. So we’ll probably be rolling out some tools along the Library Thing’s UnSuggester, to recommend stories that may not otherwise appear on one’s radar (based on previous user history)…

    p.s. You make it sound as if I am due to receive a Pulitzer prize for reporting soon — I am not a full-time reporter, more of a commentator, so that your readers don’t get confused — there are still real people out there doing real reporting and not just writing essays and commentary like me:-)

  2. Dear Mr. Zuckerman,
    Let me start by telling you how much I enjoy reading and referring your posts on my Blog news section.
    My name is Codrin Arsene, I am a young Africanist doing research at the University of Chicago, who has recently launched an African portal on political affairs. My website is designed to offer visitors daily analysis of the most important events, provide them with the most recent video news, daily updates of the most significant breaking news on the continent, with blog news and also a short feed of news explored somewhat in detail, on the right column. My primary area of interest is Chinese investment in Africa but I write on various African political events. The mission of this portal is to create the largest database of African and Africa-related blogs. By the end of the summer I hope to create different feed reads that will pile blog news from different social areas from African culture, Africa and technological advancements, African politics, travel to Africa and other similar resources. These feeds with compliment the current web platform that is mainly focused on political events. It will allow users to subscribe to these feeds and receive all the blog entries they want from a particular field of interest. I have also added you to my blogroll, followed your blog progress and, at times, I have listed your main stories in the Blog news, linking our blogs. As you will see the linkage fully respects the journalistic deontology listing the exact title and source. Since the blogroll is becoming bigger and bigger you will find that I might list fewer stories from your blog, only those which are of great importance for a particular day (I’m also limited by Google which only allows me to list 10 stories in the News section).
    While I’m really interested in your postings I’m also interested in helping bloggers with a great interest in African affairs interact. In the near future I will create a listhost inviting all those bloggers, researchers, PHD candidates with an interest on Africa to start debating on an issue that they feel they have the background and the knowledge to engage in such a debate. I will pair 2 or 3 bloggers for a limited period of time and give them the opportunity to debate and answer the questions other users will ask. I will also create several pages with the debaters’ profiles and resumes, if they accept this offer. If you would like to participate in such a project, please do not hesitate to contact me at csarsene@gmail.com so that when the listhost is launched I can add you on it immediately.
    I would also kindly ask you to add me to your blogroll if you think that the content of this portal is of general interest for the people living in your area or visiting your blog. By no means will I delete your blog from the blogroll or stop referring your stories if you choose not to add me to the blogroll. I will only do that at your explicit request. I hope that this project will help us bond, create strategic partnerships and collaborate in the future.
    After two weeks of generating Africa related content, this portal currently runs at 100-150 unique visitors a day.

    All the best
    Codrin Arsene
    http://codrinarsene.com/
    csarsene@gmail.com
    +17739527859

    PS: I apologize for not sending this messege to your email address but i could not find one listed on your blog.

  3. Hanan Cohen says:

    After unsubscribing many feeds, PolyMeme is the first one that got me to subscribe. Thanks!

  4. About seven years ago I started a research project that tried to define what a “serendipity engine” or a “discovery engine” might look like for people who positively wanted to find material on the web (or anywhere) across boundaries and silos of the then rather rigid hierarchies around subjects. We felt that nearly all development on the web was focussed on the faster, bigger, better delivery coming from business models, and not much was coming from more creative, cultural or gender specific models of searching and navigation…In those days it was very hard even to get people to imagine that some people wanted a journey of discovery through content, not just an arrival point. And so we were reduced to comparing this to either taking the motorway/freeway or to taking the scenic route , perhaps with a picnic!
    All that time ago we felt the easiest way to do this would be to explore these silos or hierarchies using a thesaurus model rather than a dictionary model to find what that might bring…maybe the time has come to get that research out again…

  5. Wayne says:

    Thanks Ethan – and thanks Evgeny! I’ve added the Polymeme general feed and am cleaning out a few others in my overgrown feed list already. Routes to smart material off the well trod digital path are sorely needed. Here’s hoping Polymeme is a smashing success.

  6. denise young says:

    This is great! It answers a real need for those of us who have drifted away from mainstream media outlets but are still motivated to keep feeding our polymath appetites with quality content. Thanks Ethan for writing about this.

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